FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (AP) — The top court on America’s largest Native American reservation on Thursday ordered tribal election officials to postpone the Navajo Nation’s presidential election and reprint ballots without the name of a candidate who was disqualified in a language fluency case.
The Navajo Supreme Court’s decision came as a result of a petition to enforce a disqualification order against Chris Deschene. A lower court had blocked Deschene from seeking the tribe’s top elected post after he refused to show whether he could speak Navajo fluently. Tribal law requires that presidential candidates understand and speak fluent Navajo, a key part of tribal identity.
The high court dismissed Deschene’s appeal of the disqualification order Wednesday.
The presidential election was scheduled for Nov. 4. But the Supreme Court said it must be postponed to ensure valid results.
Election officials were meeting with attorneys to decide their next steps.
The disqualification order required that the third-place finisher from the primary be moved up.
The Navajo language is a defining part of the tribe’s culture. More people speak it than any other single tribal language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the tribe’s more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.
Two primary opponents challenged Deschene’s fluency in the language.
Deschene has said he is proficient, but he refused to take a fluency test or answer questions in hearings. He said it was unfair that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.
Deschene declared Wednesday that his candidacy was not over. He asked supporters to back legislation on the Navajo Nation Council’s agenda this week that would make voters the sole decision-makers when it comes to determining a presidential candidate’s fluency.
The emergency legislation is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election but is subject to amendments. It’s unclear whether it could undo a tribal Supreme Court ruling.
Delegate Leonard Tsosie said he co-sponsored the bill because he’s concerned about disenfranchising voters who already have picked who they want as their next leader. He said the bill will bring some finality to the election.
Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. went out, and early voting was underway.